Continuing Tales


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 2 of 8

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Spring's horror faded gradually into summer's haze, and time forged relentlessly ahead into the early days of autumn. Miroku ignored the creeping chill in the air as he trailed after a bounding Shippo; it was just another kind of numb. As they made their way back to the clearing where Goshinboku stood guard over a pair of silent graves, the rustling of dry grass mirrored the dissonant thoughts clattering through Miroku's mind. I really hate coming here. The graves he'd dug on that spring morning weren't fresh anymore; over the weeks, the grief-stricken monk had watched the mounds settle. Gradually, grass had spread to cover them, hiding the scarred earth, and the only testimony left to the anguished death of all his hopes was a trio of low, stone markers—Inuyasha, Sango, Kirara—now mostly obscured by falling leaves.

"Come on, Miroku! Hurry up!" Shippo turned wide, green eyes up towards the slower monk. Running in a brisk circle around Miroku before dashing ahead again, the kitsune called over his shoulder, "Can't you walk any faster?"

"Patience, Shippo. I'm coming," responded the monk calmly.

"We're late though," whined the kit. "I don't want them to think I forgot!"

Miroku grimaced at the young fox's choice of words, but kept his tone reassuring. "We're almost there, Shippo. Don't worry so much."

Life in the village had returned to normal, moving on despite the presence of one man whose life had come to a standstill. Days passed and seasons changed, yet Miroku couldn't let go of the raw grief and anger he felt over the magnitude of his failure. Why did she have to die? I would have taken her place—better me than her. I failed her. He passed most nights in restless tossing and turning, and his days were walking nightmares. Disturbing images plagued him, forcing him to relive each tragic moment. Phantom noises echoed through his mind, clear and jarring—Kirara's death shriek, Sango's scream of pain, Inuyasha's tortured moans, Kagome's desperate wails. They beat down upon him, wearying his soul until it pled for release.

"Look at all the leaves, Miroku! Will you help me move them?"

"Of course," responded the monk evenly, as he crouched down before Goshinboku to sweep the stone markers clean—two graves, two stones, with a small cenotaph for Kirara between them.

"Maybe we should bring a rake next time?" wondered Shippo as he gazed up at the varicolored leaves the God Tree had yet to release.

"That's a very good idea, Shippo. I'm sure Kaede-sama would loan us hers if you asked her."

Most days, Miroku barely left Kaede's hut. Pensive and preoccupied, his mind whirled with unanswerable questions. Why didn't I sense the youkai sooner? Why did I assume that with Naraku gone, we were safe? Why couldn't I protect the woman I love? Discouragement, disappointment, and depression weighed him down. He ate little and slept less, although he tried not to appear too morose for Shippo's sake. Hide it though he tried, he was heartsick, and many nights he woke in a panic, frantically reaching out for those who were long beyond his reach.

"Do you think they'll like these," Shippo asked with hopeful eyes.

"Yes, Shippo. Such a fine gift will surely remind them of you," assured the monk.

He'd still be propped in a dark corner of that hut now, but for the kit's pleading eyes. Miroku could not deny Shippo, allowing himself to be persuaded and enduring these little expeditions. The kit was grieving too, and insisted on going to the graves every few days to leave some small token of respect and remembrance for Inuyasha, Sango, and Kirara. Today, he carried an armload of acorns. Miroku sat with Shippo as he arranged his little offering, chattering quietly in a one-sided conversation. The monk barely paid attention, trying to distance himself from the pain and keep his sanity. All he wanted to do right now was walk away—put those three low stone reminders at his back and try to outrun the unwelcome memories they stirred up… and yet, Miroku stayed. Hollow and restless though he was, he remained in the village, growing more and more listless and forlorn with every passing day.

"I used to throw acorns at Inuyasha a lot. Do you think he remembers that?" asked Shippo hesitantly.

Miroku focused on the youngster and tried to read the question behind the question. "Do you mean does he remember your acorns, or that you threw them at him?" he asked gently.

Shippo scuffed his foot on the ground, turning several leaves aside with his small foot. "Mostly I wanna know if he remembers me," he replied, eyes bright.

Pulling the teary kitsune onto his lap, Miroku offered what comfort he could. "Of course Inuyasha remembers you, Shippo. Never doubt that. He loved you very much, and still does."

A large part of the problem was that Miroku had no idea of what to do with himself. The first few days after the tragedy had been full of needful activities. He'd worked alongside the village men, hauling demon carcasses to the Bone Eater's Well. There had been two graves to dig, and Shippo had insisted on helping with that. Then, there had been prayers to say—the soothing chants a welcome outlet for pent up emotions—but when the last prayer was spoken and the last flowers laid, his duties were completed.

What now? For so long he'd been driven by the need to lift kanzaana's curse. Following the vaguest of rumors, he'd set out alone to find Naraku—a quest that eventually led him to Inuyasha and Kagome and their search for the shards of the Shikon no Tama. Not long after that, and much to his delight, Miroku had been granted a third motivating force—hope for a future with Sango. Suddenly, within a matter of days, all three had been taken from him. I have nothing left to live for.

When monk and kitsune trailed back into the village together, Miroku noticed Kaede-sama on her knees among the herbs in her garden. Shippo made straight for his friends, a small group of children playing ball in the middle of town. Miroku turned instead towards the elderly miko. He wandered over, lowering himself to the ground a couple rows away and poking absently at the loose earth. Kaede's greeting was calm, but Miroku felt the sharpness of her penetrating gaze. She doesn't miss much. Kaede had been watching him closely from the beginning, obviously concerned. I should be grateful there is someone who cares—Kaede and Shippo, they both care. Miroku idly tugged at a few weeds, uncertain how to begin.

In the end, all it took was one question from the wise, old woman. "Are ye ready to tell me, then?" Miroku lifted haunted eyes from the ground, swallowed hard, and nodded dumbly. Kaede struggled to her feet, dusting off her knees and hands, and moved toward the hut. "Come, and I'll make ye some tea while we talk."

The earthenware cup warmed his hands, and Miroku contemplated it while Kaede poured her own tea and settled herself comfortably across the fire pit from him. It was a relief to finally unburden himself to someone. All the misery of the last months tumbled out—the horrible memories that ripped at his soul, the guilt over remaining alive when the others had died so pointlessly, his confusion over wanting to run away from the pain, his frustration over losing all purpose for the future. Kaede listened with kindness as Miroku bared his bleak soul and shared his blighted dreams. "They've all been taken from me. Sango, Inuyasha, Kagome-sama—they're all gone." He displayed the smooth palm of his hand. "Now that I know my life won't be cut short, that life has become pointless," he concluded bitterly.

When the monk finally wound down, Kaede tried to help him the only way she knew how. Gently, she reminded him that there was something he could do. "Ye lost two that were dear to thee, true enough. But there's another one yet, and I suspect she has need of thee more than ever. Ye are obviously restless, monk. There is no need to stay here. Perhaps it is time to seek the Jewel once more. In finding it, you will find Kagome."

"You think I should go find Kagome-sama?" Miroku parroted.

"Aye. Ye said she did not look as if she wished to leave with Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"She agreed to go, but she didn't look entirely comfortable with the prospect," confirmed the monk guiltily.

"She is not in familiar surroundings, and has not her friends around her in her time of grief. She cannot travel to her own time or rejoin her family unless she first returns here." Kaede let the words sink in for a few moments before gently adding, "Perhaps Kagome would like to go home?"

As if in echo to Kaede's suggestion, Inuyasha's last words to him came back to his mind. Make sure Kagome is safe. Miroku nodded slowly; Kaede's words made good sense. In fact, he was chagrined not to have thought of it—or her—sooner. Kagome should be given the chance to come home… to go back home. Miroku latched onto the fleeting promise of purpose this task carried with it. It is something to do, somewhere to go, someone who needs me.

"Why can't I come with you?"

"I need you to stay here, Shippo," Miroku repeated diplomatically.

"I want to see Okaasan," the kit whined fretfully.

"You will, Shippo," the monk promised. "I will bring her back with me."

"Won't you need my help?" wheedled the kit. "You might need my youkai senses and my foxfire. I could protect you on the journey."

Miroku sighed, but did not give in. "Your strength and cleverness as the only youkai in the village is the very reason I must leave you behind."

"What?" Shippo asked in surprise.

"While I am away, I want you to promise to keep the village safe," explained the monk. "You can keep a nose out for danger and make sure nothing tampers with my wards while I am away."

Faced with such an important responsibility, the kit wavered. "I suppose I could do that," he admitted slowly, "but I… I really miss my Okaasan." Shippo bit his lip to hold back his tears of disappointment.

Miroku went down on his knees before the young youkai, speaking in low and soothing tones. "Let's make a deal then, shall we?" he offered. "I'll be counting on you to protect Kaede-sama and all of the other villagers for me, and in return I promise to find your Okaasan. I'll keep Kagome-sama safe and bring her back for you."

"You promise?"

"I promise."

Two days later, Miroku bid farewell to Kaede and Shippo and set his face westward. There was only one person who knew where to find Kagome. I can only hope he's willing to talk to me. With a wry smile, he mentally added, if he's willing to talk at all!

Not far from where Miroku sat in the shade of a tree, three dark heads bent together in furious conference. The monk eyed them with wary resignation. Apparently the Divine thought that turnabout was fair play, for he was about to be propositioned.

He'd been on the road for seven days now, and for the second time this week, Miroku was forced to mask his impatience with a pleasant smile. In the last small village, it was the headman who'd tried to coax the monk to abandon his wandering ways and settle down. The man's eldest daughter had been mooning over him, and Miroku suspected the invitation had come at her urging. This time it looked to be a mother with two unwed daughters; that predatory gleam in her eye was unmistakable. With a sigh, Miroku settled back to fend off her efforts to snag a new son-in-law.

She eased into her attack with polite small talk, "Have you traveled far, my good monk?"

You have no idea. I've wandered through these lands since I was barely more than a child. My search for Naraku drove me far and wide. I've seen more of the world than you and your daughters ever will. "I have," was his only rejoinder.

Not one whit discouraged by the brevity of his answer, the woman set about to lay her trap. "Ours is a nice, quiet village. A small community like ours needs a man like you. What could possibly keep you from making your home here, among us?" A quick elbow to one daughter's ribs set the girl's eyelashes fluttering.

What indeed? Miroku thought it best to play coy. "My intention was to continue my journey after thanking you for providing such a fine meal, good woman."

The matchmaking mother's brow furrowed at this, and Miroku had to hide a small smirk at her machinations. That's not what you were really asking, is it? The woman considered her words carefully before settling on the direct approach, "You are not promised to another, are you?"

This made the monk wince inwardly. Not anymore. I had a woman I was promised to—strong, beautiful, and loving—but I failed her. I couldn't protect her, and she died. I watched her die. With a shadow darkening his eyes, he simply answered, "No, ma'am."

Oblivious to the traveler's change in mood, the woman pressed her perceived advantage, "You are so young and handsome. Have you never given thought to settling down and starting a family?"

This really did bring a lopsided smile to Miroku's face. Subtlety isn't her strong suit, is it? His own words echoed in his mind. Excuse me, miss. Would you consider bearing my child? How many times had he propositioned village girls in this way? And now that he was free from the kanzaana and could sire children without passing it on, he was alone. "My journey is necessary, kind lady, and I cannot consider such things until it is at an end."

A nudge in her other daughter's direction provoked a fawning smile, which served as the backdrop to her next tactic. "It must be very lonely for you. Surely your journey would be more pleasant if you had a companion to share it with?" Apparently, if he wasn't willing to stay, she was willing to pack up a daughter to send with him.

Companions. Yes, he missed companionship. It's been a very long time since I traveled alone, and I can't say I care for it. "I shall be joined by a friend shortly, so you need not worry on my account." If I can find her, that is… and if she wants to come.

For several more minutes Miroku valiantly defended his solitary existence. I am never stopping in another village, he groaned internally. Extricating himself with as much tact as could be mustered, Miroku bowed his goodbyes and strode out of the village, heading deeper into the West.

A few days further down the road found Miroku considering his options. Reluctant to stop in another village for food and shelter, he'd been keeping his eyes open for natural resources. By midafternoon, a trickling stream had meandered within a stone's throw of his path, so he left the main road for a bit of a break. Dusty feet and parched throat both found the cool water a welcome relief.

He didn't like the prospect of mixing with strangers tonight. The last thing he wanted was a repeat performance of his latest forays into small town life. All the well-meaning people, all the small talk, all the uncomfortable questions—it's easier to keep to myself. Miroku decided to follow the little creek upstream a bit, towards its source. If nothing else, the water would be fresher and colder, and if he was fortunate, there might even be some pools large enough for fish or a bath. Pushing himself upright with his shakujou, Miroku headed along the bank, deeper into the woods.

He set himself an easy pace, enjoying the chuckling gurgle of water and the dance of sunlight over smoothed pebbles. A stream makes good company. The trees closed in overhead, sheltering him from the afternoon sun. He found the half-light of the forest soothing, and slowed his pace even further. After a half hour's exploration, his nose picked up the heady scent of ripe fruit. Since foraging prospects had been rather sparse thus far, he picked up his pace slightly, eager for some food.

It was far too late in the season for plums, whose distinctive trees Miroku had spotted cozied up to the opposite bank of the creek in wild thickets. Early fall would mean… Rounding a little bend, he found himself peering up into the branches of a dozen venerable fruit trees. The air was sticky with the syrupy smell of pears; overripe fruit and windfalls were scattered underfoot, attracting the lazy hum of wasps. Quickly determining that the bruised and broken pieces below were a lost cause, Miroku turned his eyes upward and spotted some promising specimens high among the branches. Choosing a knobby tree that overhung the stream, he made ready to climb.

With deft hands, Miroku girded up his robes to give himself greater freedom of movement. He slipped his sandals from his feet and propped his shakujou against the trunk. The old tree was gnarled with age and blessed with enough convenient twists and turns to make the monk's ascent fairly easy. Reaching back down, he pulled his staff up behind him, hooking it through an overhead branch to keep it close as he climbed.

Using fingers and toes to grip and pull, he scrambled upwards until he could settle into a wide crook near the trunk.

Soon, Miroku had a lapful of ripe pears, and propping his feet up onto a branch, he leaned back to enjoy his repast. It didn't take long for the rough bark to bite into his legs, making him squirm. I don't know how Inuyasha managed to spend so much time lounging in treetops. After much shifting of robes, he managed to pad the branch sufficiently to make his perch bearable. Miroku let his mind wander as he gazed up through the quietly rustling leaves. Evening is drawing closer; maybe this would be a good place to spend the night. It's a restful spot… quiet, but not solemnly so. The babble of water below helped keep Miroku's solitary state from becoming too oppressive. I've had too much quiet lately. He had to honestly admit that he was lonely—not lonely enough to seek out the company of strangers, however. It was the loneliness of knowing that something was missing.

Travel was familiar; what he missed was the conversations, the teasing, the laughter. He missed sharing things—chores, memories, meals, baths. He missed flying on Kirara's back with Sango's hips clasped between his knees. He missed Kagome's strange tea kettle and packages of instant noodles. He missed Inuyasha's little squabbles with Shippo, which always ended with chewed ears and lumped heads. I miss having someone to care about and having someone to care about me. Traveling in a group had meant sharing the load, sharing the responsibilities. By working together, they'd enjoyed every amenity camping out could afford—warm fires, fresh water, meat from the hunt, foraged fruits, and a good night's sleep knowing someone was keeping watch. Alone, Miroku didn't make the same efforts. Most nights, a fire was too much of a luxury. There was little to eat and even less rest. Traveling alone was a wearying experience. With his shakujou across his knees, Miroku adjusted himself, resigned to spending his night up a tree.

In the end, fifteen days were required to bring the traveling monk to the holdings of the Lord of the Western Lands, which were impressive indeed. When Miroku presented himself before the taiyoukai's fortress gates that morning, he'd been admitted politely enough. However, Sesshoumaru-sama was busy elsewhere and would not receive him until later that day. In the meantime, the monk had been served a meal, then invited to spend a few hours wandering through the grounds.

He loitered in the gardens, surprised at how jumpy he felt in his anticipation. She's here somewhere—behind one of those walls, through one of those doors. The sharp points of maple leaves were burnished bronze and red against blue skies. Ginkgos provided contrast with their softly fanned golden foliage, and chrysanthemums still bloomed, flaunting their abundance of fringed, silken petals. Smooth, moss-covered stones lined the verges of deep koi ponds, and a tiny wind chime hung from the low branches of a cherry tree, making soft music for any who settled on the stone bench nearby. Beauty and simplicity were found in every niche into which the curious monk poked his nose.

Finally, Miroku was shown to Sesshoumaru-sama's study, where the taiyoukai was seated before a wide, low table strewn with parchments and scrolls. The Lord of the West was busily writing, brush poised between long fingers. Gracefully, with the confidence of long practice, he dabbed ink across the page with swift, sure strokes. No doubt Sesshoumaru-sama's perfection extends to his penmanship.

Miroku was struck by the oddity of the scene before him. He'd never seen Sesshoumaru anywhere but out under the open sky, and most of those times had involved skirmishes. Dragon strikes, poison claws, acid whips—this taiyoukai was a deadly killer, a ruthless assassin, a force to be reckoned with. Miroku's image of Sesshoumaru definitely did not include fine brushwork. Bemused, the monk tipped his head to one side, trying to reconcile the apparent clash. Oddly enough, the taiyoukai looked completely at ease in these surroundings. I shouldn't be surprised. This is his home. Obviously, there was more to Sesshoumaru-sama's life than wandering over hill and dale with Jaken and Rin; and apparently even youkai had to deal with paperwork.

Sesshoumaru looked up from his work, taking in Miroku's presence with a fleeting glance. Accepting this as permission to speak, the monk thought it best to start with the pleasantries. "Thank you for agreeing to see me, Sesshoumaru-sama. My compliments on your home. It is a place of ancient strength and quiet grace, and it has been a pleasure to explore the beauties of the gardens."

The taiyoukai nodded once. "Perhaps you would enjoy the painted screens throughout the fortress as well. Rin would be pleased to show you around."

Here was another thing he'd not expected from the taiyoukai—hospitality. "Thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama. I would be grateful for the opportunity."

For another minute, the quiet slide of bristles over paper was the only sound in the room. Then Sesshoumaru finished up, set aside brush and ink, and gave the monk his undivided attention. Miroku quailed a bit under the youkai's gaze. Sesshoumaru's yelloweyes seemed to pierce right though him, reading his very thoughts, and his formidable youki buffeted against the monk's own aura, easily overwhelming it. The taiyoukai exuded knowledge, power, and experience. Suddenly, the monk felt very… human—short-sighted, short-lived, and short shrift. Remembering his plan, his only purpose for being there, Miroku pulled himself together and put on a brave face. I've nothing to lose, after all, he consoled himself. However, before Miroku could plead his case, Sesshoumaru opened with a question of his own.

"You made arrangements for Inuyasha's burial." The only indication that the statement was intended as a question was the slight quirk of the taiyoukai's brow.

Miroku exhaled slowly. "Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama. I took care of him myself. He and Sango are both buried under the tree known as Goshinboku. It seemed… appropriate."

After a thoughtful pause, Sesshoumaru nodded. "Indeed."

A long, awkward pause followed as Miroku tried to decide where to begin. Sesshoumaru let out a small breath, which could have been a sigh of impatience. "You have questions for me, monk. Ask them."

Startled by the invitation, Miroku asked his most pressing question rather baldly. "Why did you not wield Tenseiga?" he blurted without preamble.

One elegant brow raised slightly and Miroku suddenly felt the audacity of his question. He backpedaled slightly, "Not that I am ungrateful that you came to our aid. Indeed, you saved Kagome-sama's and my life that night, but we lost two of our group who were very… dear." Miroku cleared his throat uncomfortably at the taiyoukai's impassive gaze. "Could you not… have brought them back?" he finished lamely.

Strained silence stretched for several moments before the Lord of the West replied in a slow, measured tone. "No, monk, I could not. This Sesshoumaru would have wielded Tenseiga if it were possible. My father's fang does not always… cooperate."

It was Miroku's turn to raise a brow. The formality of the taiyoukai's pronouncement lacked apology, yet Sesshoumaru was being uncharacteristically forthcoming. To press the matter might offend his host, and Miroku didn't wish to lose his opportunity to question him about Kagome. Still, he couldn't resist adding, "You would have helped your brother?"

"Half-brother," corrected Sesshoumaru automatically, "And… yes. Was this the question of such pressing importance that you would seek me out?" The taiyoukai asked, quirking his brow knowingly.

Miroku started as his thoughts were interrupted, and managed a bitter little laugh. "No, my lord; that question was just to satisfy my curiosity. I came to inquire after Kagome-sama. Is she here?"

The taiyoukai eyed the monk speculatively, as if trying to read his motives. The answer, when it came, was short. "No."

"Ah," responded Miroku, wondering if the laconic youkai would be cooperative with the next line of questioning. "Will you tell me where she is?"

"Why do you wish to know?"

This gave Miroku pause. Why indeed. What can I tell him? I need to be careful. "I would like to talk to her, and see for myself that she is well."

"The miko is under my protection. The fewer who know where she resides, the safer she will remain."

Treading carefully, Miroku tried a different angle. "If she is under your protection, why did you not keep her here with you?"

"She carries the completed Shikon no Tama, but her spiritual powers were insufficient to protect the Jewel. The miko required time to gain strength and understanding, so I put her in a place of safety where she can acquire both. She is somewhere that no youkai can reach her, so the miko and the Jewel are secure."

After a moment's thought, Miroku put a few pieces together. "No youkai can reach her? So she is in a holy place?"


"A temple, or a shrine perhaps?" guessed the monk.


"Where?" Miroku asked again.

"You have yet to answer my question, monk. Why do you seek her?"

How can I answer something like that? Because I've nothing better to do. Because it gives me a sense of purpose. Because I have nothing to live for. Because I'm all alone and so is she. Because I miss my friends. Everything and everyone who mattered to him had been taken from him in one night. But while Sango and Inuyasha were forever out of his reach, Kagome was not. With Kagome, there was hope. If I search for her, I might actually find her. She might need me as much as I need her.

Choosing his words carefully, Miroku attempted to explain his motivation. "You keep her safe because she is pack and falls under your protection. Kagome-sama is…was a part of my pack, so she doesn't require protection from me. We were like a family. Inuyasha and Sango are gone now and our family is… broken. But I'm still here, and she's still here. I want to see her safe. I want to see for myself that she's all right."

"So with my half-brother gone, you wish to take on the role of protector?" persisted Sesshoumaru.

Miroku leveled his gaze at Lord Sesshoumaru. "I suppose so," he said amiably. "I would protect her if she needed it. In fact, I made a promise to Inuyasha to keep her safe." Hoping for the taiyoukai's acquiescence, Miroku echoed Sesshoumaru's own words. "I will protect her."

Sesshoumaru reached his decision. "I will tell you what you wish to know."

"Is this the girl, Sesshoumaru-sama?"


"Come here, child," the woman beckoned with a long finger.

Kagome moved forward numbly and did not flinch when the woman dressed in miko garb grasped her chin and tipped her head up. Gazing into the younger woman's face with a mixture of pity and curiosity, she spoke again to the taiyoukai. "I will see to her, Sesshoumaru-sama. She will be safe here." Then more softly to Kagome, "Poor child." The grieving girl found herself in arms so like her mother's that tears sprang into her eyes. That night, Kagome fell asleep in a strange bed, clutching a bloodied necklace and a sword, tears staining her cheeks.

Kagome took comfort in Umeko's presence. The miko was tall for a woman, and slender. Her hair, which was liberally streaked with grey, hung down her back in a braid which brushed her knees. "Keeps the wind from tangling it, in these heights," she explained when Kagome eyed the non-traditional style curiously. Umeko stood very straight, and her manners were quite formal, but the light in her dark eyes was good-humored. Kagome found her to be patient, wise, and oddly mischievous.

Umeko reigned as matriarch over the keepers that tended Yamataku Shrine. Umeko's younger sister Noriko—more than a decade her junior—managed house and home. She was a quiet woman who liked keeping busy, and tended to bustle around even when nothing needed doing. Noriko's husband, Kisho, had an easy-going manner and ready laugh. Together they had three children—a ten-year old boy, and two girls, aged six and three. Perched as they were on the high cliffs, the family was by necessity close-knit and self-sufficient. The nearest village was more than a day's journey down into the foothills, alongside a river which could just be seen sparkling through the valley far below. It was just the six of them, along with a few goats, chickens, and rabbits. And one apprentice miko, Kagome added wryly to herself.

For the first two weeks, Kagome's training amounted to sitting quietly on a cushion while being fed cup after cup of strong green tea. The older miko knew a grieving woman when she saw one and gave Kagome time to sort herself out. They met every day, but their "lessons" were little more than opportunities for Kagome to talk and to cry over her teacup. Umeko never pushed, but Kagome was not one to hold in her feelings. Awash with grief, loneliness, and homesickness, the young miko was grateful for the woman's warmth and patience. Umeko reminded Kagome a little of her mother, and her raw soul needed the kind of healing balm only a mother can give.

Kagome cried herself to sleep every night, and had no appetite despite Noriko's good cooking. She fell into periods of melancholy, and at those times, she just wanted to be left alone. Yet in the back of her mind, Kagome knew that this place was a haven, and she felt safe and cared for. They were all exceedingly kind, and she was grateful to be accepted by everyone at the Shrine. In a way, they'd adopted her, treating her like a daughter, or a big sister—a member of their family. It's not the same though. It's nice, but it's not home.

It wasn't long before two girls wheedled their way into the afternoon miko lessons. Their aunt assured the youngsters that since they could be mikos one day too, they might as well start their training early. Kagome was skeptical. How can a six-year old chatterbox like Michi settle down long enough to learn something about healing herbs or spiritual auras? Fully expecting the little ones to be bored by lessons in meditation or concentration, she figured they'd wander off to play. I should have known better. That first day, the only thing accomplished was hair braiding. Umeko assured Kagome, with a sly wink, that braiding was a very necessary miko skill.

"Sometimes a little change is welcome," asserted the elder miko. "Here, Michi-chan, come help your Auntie braid Kagome-sama's hair."

Kagome resigned herself to the therapeutic ministrations of hands on hair, and the resultant mass of whimsically coiled braids brought the first smile to her face since… that night. Kagome had to agree though. A little change is nice. She took to braiding her hair each morning, though in a much simpler style. Two plaits began at her temples and followed her hairline, catching up black tresses neatly until they joined in one thick braid down her back. Like Umeko says, it keeps the wind at bay.

Weeks slipped by unremarked and unremarkable. Life here is so ordinary. After years of chasing after Jewel shards and battling youkai, it was difficult to adjust to a quiet life. It's not so bad, really. There's just so little… variety. Grateful for the welcome she'd received into this family's hearts, Kagome helped around the shrine in any little way she could. Michi and Etsu invited her to share their egg gathering duties, which was interesting enough. Taro tried to teach her how to milk a goat, but Kagome couldn't get the knack of it and left it to the boy to expertly fill the milk pans. Noriko welcomed her help with the family laundry—a time-consuming job for any busy mother in this day and age. Kagome appreciated the chance to keep her hands busy and her mind occupied.

By far, her favorite task was hiking up into the forested slopes above the Shrine with Umeko to gather herbs and roots and seasonal foodstuffs. Nuts had begun falling, so Kagome and the children raced against the squirrels to gather a store of them before winter had the chance to snow them in. Kagome shivered a little at the prospect of spending the winter months here. I'll bet it's windy and cold… and lonely.

Pushing back the listlessness that weighed down her limbs, Kagome reached for her quiver. Running her fingers across the fletchings, she counted arrows. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Should be plenty, especially if Taro will fetch for me. Umeko's notion of proper training included some very practical skills, and archery had been established as a necessary part of her daily routine. The elder miko shrugged off her half-hearted complaints, explaining that Sesshoumaru-sama had insisted, going so far as to provide the bow from his armory. Apparently his word on the matter was the last word as far as Umeko was concerned. Kagome had to admit that further mastery of the weapon would aid her in protecting the Shikon no Tama, but she just found it hard to care. Still, the daily target practice was something to do. It passes the time. Shouldering her borrowed equipment, Kagome prepared to leave her room. She glanced over her tiny space, making sure her belongings were in order. Not that there's much to fuss over. A cloth-wrapped Tetsusaiga rested on the centre of her pallet, and Inuyasha's rosary was tucked securely into a fold of fabric at her waist. Reassured that all was where it should be, she slipped out of the door.

Sure enough, before the young miko made it halfway across the courtyard, a young boy was shadowing her steps. Taro was Noriko's eldest, and a perfect little replica of his father. All boy, his eyes would brighten whenever she brought out her weapon. Easy-going and friendly, he'd begun to tag along with the newcomer to his home. Kagome didn't mind his company since he rarely pestered her with questions. He just seemed to like being close to the young miko… especially when she was sending flared arrows hurtling towards their marks.

"Will you fetch for me today, Taro-kun?" Kagome invited, giving the boy a slight smile.

He nodded vigorously, assuming his usual place against a low wall to watch Kagome take aim. She'd been trying to improve her accuracy while firing several arrows in succession, but had been struggling to keep her actions fluid. Taking a deep breath, she focused on igniting the arrow she held, then loosed it. The repetitive movements of reaching behind for an arrow, notching it, drawing back, and releasing was rather calming. By the third shot, Kagome had found her rhythm and went through the motions smoothly. It's so much easier not to fumble when I don't have a ravening youkai bearing down on me. Kagome maintained her concentration until all sixteen arrows had been spent. This was Taro's signal, and he leapt to his feet to collect the shafts from their targets for a second round.

After scrambling and tugging for a minute or two, Taro trotted back to Kagome's side and offered her the arrows, admiration lending a shine to his eyes. "How did you get so good at archery?" he wondered aloud.

"I wasn't always this good. In fact, the first time I used a bow and arrow, I couldn't hit a thing." Much to Inuyasha's disgust, she added to herself.

"You must've practiced a lot then? You're real good now."

"Yes… I've had a lot of practice." No choice really. Battle after battle provided more practice than I wanted. Survival is a strong motivating force.

Taro's curiosity was piqued by Kagome's tone. "Have you ever shot a youkai?"

"As a matter of fact, I have," the miko replied levelly.

The boy's eyes were wide. "You've seen a youkai?"

Kagome's eyes drifted out of focus as she remembered the many youkai she'd faced. Some she'd battled. Some she'd befriended. Taro lived quite a sheltered life here at the Shrine. According to Umeko, the entire mountain was a holy place and no youkai could come near. He had never seen a demon in his life, and maybe never would. They're like mythical creatures from fairy tales to him. I wonder what he'd think if I told him I was going to be mated to a hanyou? Kagome shook herself and looked down into Taro's upturned face. He'd probably be just as impressed by Inuyasha as…. With a jolt, Kagome was forcibly reminded of her little brother Souta, and homesickness tugged at her mercilessly. Her answer came out with a wobble, "Yes, Taro. I've seen many youkai."

"Amazing," breathed the boy starrily, as he handed Kagome the bundle of arrows. Settling them into her quiver, Kagome took up her stance as Taro resumed his seat.

Kagome reached back to catch her first arrow, but her eyes were pulled towards her audience of one. He can't be much younger than Souta is now. Eyes forward, she drew back and fired first one arrow, then a second. Taro is ten. Souta is twelve? Her third arrow leapt prematurely from the bowstring and skittered across the pavement. No. No, Souta is thirteen now. I missed his birthday. Kagome's hand trembled as she reached back for another arrow. Souta is a teenager now, and I wasn't there for his big day. I've never missed his birthday before. Eyes filling with tears, Kagome abandoned any hope of further practice. With a half-hearted apology to young Taro, she turned towards her borrowed room. Homesickness tearing at her heart, Kagome hid herself away for the rest of the day, mourning the loss of her family.

Kagome thought back to the night she'd been carried to Yamataku Shrine. She'd only stayed with Sesshoumaru for a week or so when he'd informed her that he'd found a safe place for her to train. That week was something of a haze. She remembered the imposing size of the fortress, and Rin leading her by the hand everywhere she went. Kagome was pretty sure the little girl had tried to feed her as well. They were always fussing at her to eat, even though she hadn't been hungry. Sesshoumaru had hovered on the fringes, watchful but distant. After puzzling over the matter for a bit, Kagome finally approached Umeko. "Why was Sesshoumaru-sama able to bring me here if youkai cannot set foot on this mountain?"

Umeko's eyes held a bit of a twinkle. "Sesshoumaru-sama is a taiyoukai of great power. There is not much he cannot do."

Figures. Guess he's not arrogant for nothing. "How did you know I was coming?"

"I received a very formal letter from Sesshoumaru-sama, applying for my assistance with a miko under his care. He requested permission for you to stay here with us, and he wished you to study under my guidance—to learn to be a protector. I sent a reply back by his messenger assuring him that I would allow it."

"How do you know him?"

"Sesshoumaru-sama is Lord of the Western Lands, and though we are on the very edges of his territory, we fall under his protection. He is aware of our presence, and he knows what is protected here." Umeko pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Though he does not come here often, I believe my mother spoke with him in person once."

"So he protects you, too." Kagome pondered this for a bit. Protecting the protectors.

Umeko nodded and smiled. "It has always been so."

Finally, Umeko decided Kagome was ready, and the elder miko began the training for which Kagome had been brought to Yamataku. As she'd suspected, meditation and concentration took up a large part of her the time, but to Kagome's surprise, so were discovery and exploration. Umeko tapped the glowing jewel that hung around Kagome's neck. "Most of what you need to know is right in there," she said confidingly. "You just have to figure out what that is."

"So, you can't actually teach me anything? I have to figure out how to protect the Shikon no Tama on my own?" Kagome was disappointed, to say the least, by the vague direction.

"Let me see if I can explain. My family has always protected a certain artifact of considerable power. I am the current protector. Noriko's daughter Michi shows a certain aptitude for spiritual things. She will one day take my place, and little Etsu will marry as Noriko did, and another generation of shrine keepers will be born. Sisters and daughters—that's the way the protectors in our family have always been chosen."

Kagome nodded her understanding, but couldn't contain her curiosity. "What do you protect, Umeko-sama? What is kept here at Yamataku?"

"I wondered how long it would take you to ask," Umeko said with a chuckle. "I guess it's a good sign—that your curiosity has awakened?" The older miko gave Kagome a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Come, I will show you."

Umeko led Kagome through the main shrine to a small door behind the altar, which opened into a short passageway cut right into the stone of the mountain. To the young miko's surprise, the tunnel wasn't dark, for soft light spilled across the path from the direction they were heading. When the way opened up into a vaulted chamber, Kagome let out a soft sound of appreciation. "Oh, Umeko-sama! It's beautiful!" Resting on a stone table in the center of the room was a stand, and from the stand hung a necklace. Kagome could feel the ancient power emanating from the strand of beads, just as she could see the shimmering green aura that surrounded it.

Umeko spoke with quiet reverence. "This is the Yamataku no Magatama. It's even older than your Shikon no Tama, Kagome-sama. My family has guarded it for centuries."

Kagome stepped closer to admire the Magatama. Some thirty stones had long ago been shaped from jade, pierced, and strung together. Each comma-shaped carving emulated the graceful curve of its neighbor in perfect symmetry. The luminous power of their aura rivaled that of the Jewel in her own keeping. "The Yamataku no Magatama," whispered Kagome reverently.

"Yes. The stuff of legends," Umeko said with a smile. "It's every bit as dangerous as the Shikon no Tama in the wrong hands, so it was entrusted into my family's keeping. At the time, it was decided that the best way to protect the Magatama was to build this shrine and establish the spiritual barriers that keep youkai away. It is my duty as the current protector is to stay here. Power is lent to me by the Yamataku no Magatama in order to maintain the security of Yamataku Shrine and all that lies within its keeping. However, I can never leave." The woman stared at her hands for a moment before briskly continuing. "Now, your duties as protector of the Shikon no Tama will be vastly different than mine. I sincerely doubt you'll be tucking yourself away in some mountain shrine for the rest of your days." Umeko quirked a questioning brow at Kagome, who slowly shook her head.

"So, whatever power you'll need to protect the Jewel when you leave here—that is what we need to uncover and develop," finished the old woman triumphantly. She considered Kagome and the pink stone at her throat for a few minutes. "Have you ever noticed any special abilities or senses that have helped you with the Jewel in the past?"

Kagome thought back and answered promptly. "When the Jewel was still inside me, I was able to deflect a youkai attack with a burst of spiritual energy from my hand. And after it was broken, I could sense the shards, so long as they were not too far away."

Umeko rubbed her hands together with delight. "Good! That's a place to begin, then!"

"Kagome-sama, have you ever considered why you protect the Shikon no Tama?"

"Well," Kagome responded as she poked at the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup. "It was born inside of me, so it's my destiny to be its keeper. Its protection is my duty."

Umeko hummed vaguely, dissatisfied with the answer. "Kagome-sama, you know that I cannot leave this shrine."

Kagome nodded, but interjected, "Do you really mind, though? This is your home, and you have your family here."

"True enough," responded Umeko. "I think that being surrounded by my loved ones helps me as a protector. Love strengthens my desire to protect this place and those who dwell here far beyond the mere call of duty."

"Duty is not enough?"

"Duty is a good place to start, but when protecting is bound up with love and hope for the future, the will to protect grows stronger… and when love is wrapped up with what you protect, the responsibility to protect becomes easier to bear. I believe it is far better when protection is not limited to duty, but expanded because your heart has joined your will. If you can love that which you protect, then the Shikon will extend your abilities so that you can protect that which you love."

"I have lost everything I loved," Kagome responded flatly.

"I know that, dear one. Perhaps, in time, there will be something or someone worthy of your love." She sighed at the stubborn set to the young woman's jaw. "Time is what we can offer you here—time to grieve, time to heal, time to remember how to live again. I know you will be permitted to leave Yamataku Shrine eventually—when you are ready. In the meantime, you must connect with the Shikon no Tama and allow it to touch your soul. You have been holding back," she scolded mildly.

Kagome shifted uncomfortably under the older woman's perceptive gaze. Umeko continued, "Do not hold back from that which you protect. Embrace it, accept it, enjoy it. You must work together with the Shikon no Tama. Do not hold your heart away from what it offers you. Permit it to teach you. Allow it to help you grow. If you refuse to live, you will not grow stronger."

Kagome clasped her hands around her elbows, shoulders hunching and eyes glistening with unshed tears. "It's too hard. I don't know if I want to live. I'm not strong enough to do this alone!"

Umeko gathered the overwhelmed young woman into her arms. "It takes time, I know, and you're stronger than you think." She cradled Kagome in a warm embrace, and cooed promises. "You're not alone while I am here, and you won't have to leave until you are ready. Hush, child. We'll wait and see. Time will tell."

Kagome sat gazing out over the valley from her perch on a rock. She'd taken the little hiking trail up into the woods behind the Shrine that morning in order to spend some time alone. It was one of those days when she felt a little lost, a little lonely, a little sad, and a little homesick. It dawned on her that she had no idea where she was. I wonder what river that is? Not that I have a map to look it up. She'd not been permitted outside the safe environs of the mountaintop, and she didn't even know the name of the village down in the foothills. I'll have to ask Kisho.

She'd been living at Yamataku Shrine since late spring, but days were shorter and the sun didn't hold the same warmth it had even a week ago. Autumn is here for sure. I wonder if the fall rains come to the mountains? Just then excited voices reached her ears. Turning her head, she spotted three dark heads barreling in her direction. "Kagome-sama!"

Taro puffed happily, having bested Michi in their footrace even while carrying Etsu piggyback. "Mama sent us."

Kagome eyed the baskets in Michi's hands, and wondered what they were foraging for. The little girl chattered happily, "Mama wants berries. There was a visitor at the gates a little bit ago, and Mama said we needed to get out of her kitchen. She thought it'd be good if we could find some late berries. Do you think we can find any? If we can get berries, we can have them with Mama's sweet rice balls tonight!"

The miko chuckled at the girl's rush of words, recognizing Noriko's bid to get the children out from underfoot. If their mother needed the kitchen to herself in order to concentrate on a company meal, the least Kagome could do was keep the youngsters busy. "Let's see if there are any berries left up by the larch tree meadow; maybe we can find a few flowers for the table as well?"

Kagome led the three excited children away from the shrine walls, further up the winding path to where they might find the hoped-for berries. Arriving in a meadow edged with bramble thickets, she left the children to fill their baskets. She wandered over to a young maple and broke off a few branches with fiery red leaves. For the table.

Making herself comfortable at the base of the tree, Kagome sat back to oversee the harvesters. Fingers toyed idly with the chain which held the Shikon no Tama. It was always with her, and always would be, she supposed, along with Inuyasha's rosary. Kagome had followed Umeko's urging and had been acquainting herself with the Jewel more intimately over the last several weeks. To her surprise, the Shikon no Tama was quite responsive to her mental touch, and it hadn't taken long to uncover a newfound ability.

Kagome's senses seemed to resonate through the Jewel at times, and they were amplified in the process. More specifically, her awareness of surrounding auras had sharpened significantly. Where she had once been able to sense the shards from a short distance, with a little concentration she could now sense every living thing within the circle of the Jewel's influence—and that circle widened every day. I'm not so much a shard detector any more as I am a life detector. By tapping into the Shikon no Tama, she could sense people and their auras, gaining impressions of dominant emotions. I wonder if it is the same for youkai? She suspected it was, though there'd be no opportunity to test that theory from the shelter of Yamataku.

Kagome relaxed and allowed her senses to stretch outward, extending from the Shikon no Tama's thrumming in her palm. Michi shone brightly in her mind's eye. She's happy to be busy, just like her mother. Kagome smiled and nudged her senses further. Taro was calm, probably lazing in the sun while his sister did most of the work. Etsu's aura was distressed, and Kagome ventured a peek in her direction. She was nursing a pricked finger, but Michi was already soothing her.

They weren't so far from the Shrine, so Kagome decided to test the limits of her senses. It was easy enough to find a flustered Noriko, no doubt fussing over dinner for their guest. The shrine didn't get many guests except during a local festival held each spring. Umeko wasn't far from Noriko, radiating calm amusement. Perhaps she is lending a hand. Another stretch and she found Kisho in her mind's eye; he was filled with excitement and curiosity. The guest must be interesting indeed. So next, she reached for the stranger and recoiled slightly from the intensity of his or her aura. Sad. So very sad.

At that moment, a tearful Etsu came running, wanting sympathy for her pricked finger. Kagome caught the child up and rocked her gently, cooing over the mishap and promising that she could be the one to carry the pretty leaves home to her mother. Calling for the others to hurry up, Kagome bustled them back down the hill in force, engaging in an amusing game of "I Spy" along the way. After scolding Taro for choosing an item that was actually hidden in his pocket, and therefore impossible to spy, they trooped into the shrine compound.

The magnitude of the emotions that hit Kagome startled her to a standstill, and she looked around frantically for the source of such… relief and elation. There, standing with Kisho on the steps leading up to the Shrine. She nearly rubbed her eyes and pinched her arm to see if she was dreaming. Black and purple robes fell from broad shoulders; rumpled hair was pulled back in a low tail. The newcomer leaned casually against his golden-topped shakujou, but his calm demeanor didn't fool her for a moment because she knew him too well. Kagome met violet eyes that drank in the sight of her with an expression of ineffable gladness. With a strangled cry of joy and a surge of emotion that matched his own, she dashed up the steps and threw her arms around her dear friend. "Miroku-sama!"


A InuYasha Story
by forthright

Part 2 of 8

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